Popularity in search of purpose - Chirac's monumental career at the top

14th May 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 14, 2007 (AFP) - Jacques Chirac is remembered abroad as the man who stood up to the US over the Iraq war and battled for French influence in a globalising world, but at home the legacy of his monumental career remains deeply ambiguous.

PARIS, May 14, 2007 (AFP) - Jacques Chirac is remembered abroad as the man who stood up to the US over the Iraq war and battled for French influence in a globalising world, but at home the legacy of his monumental career remains deeply ambiguous.

Energetic, engaging and passionate for power, the 74-year-old leader has been at the centre of French politics for nearly half a century, serving 12 years as president, twice as prime minister and 18 years as Paris mayor.

Repeatedly he showed an extraordinary capacity to bounce back from adversity, and by longevity alone his career must be judged a success. A living link with wartime hero Charles de Gaulle, when he first entered government more than half today's population had yet to be born.

*quote2*But if Chirac is widely regarded with affection in France, doubts persist about the calibre of his leadership. Many regard him as an ideological empty vessel, whose time in power was a missed opportunity to impose much-needed reform.

France's 22nd president was born in 1932 into a bourgeois family from the rural Correze department. A headstrong young man with film-star looks, he had a brief flirtation with communism before doing military service in Algeria and graduating from the elite National Administration School (ENA).

In 1956 he married Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, who gave him access to her family's influential social connections. They had two girls: Laurence, who developed anorexia and has spent her adult life in an institution, and Claude, who is her father's press adviser.  

*quote1*Persistent rumours of womanising over the years were apparently confirmed in a recent book, in which Chirac was quoted saying that he "had never been averse to woman -- but I never overdid it."

After several years in government, in 1974 Chirac had his first two year term as prime minister and from then on was permanently at the heart of French politics, either in government or leading the opposition from his power-base at Paris city hall.

In 1977 he founded his Rally for the Republic (RPR) and began a long stint as the capital's mayor. The post brought huge powers of patronage, but also gave rise to charges of corruption that could cloud his future when he leaves the Elysee Palace.

In 1981 and 1988 Chirac ran unsuccessfully for the presidency and finally in 1995 Chirac beat the socialist Lionel Jospin. Two years later he had to accept Jospin as prime minister, but revenge came in 2002 when Jospin was knocked out of the election by Jean-Marie Le Pen and Chirac romped home for a second term with a record 82 percent of the vote.

Over 12 years Chirac handled a series of crises: the resumption of nuclear tests in the Pacific, military strikes against Serbs, and mass public sector protests against reform.

Later he opposed the 2003 US-led war on Iraq and his relations with the White House never fully recovered. In 2005, Chirac was humbled by a referendum vote against an EU constitution and riots in the high-immigration suburbs.  

The abiding criticism of Chirac is that he was driven by an insatiable need for political power, but had no guiding idea of how to use it.

He was against EU integration, then in favour of it; he introduced Thatcherite reforms but later campaigned to heal "the social fracture"; he ordered nuclear tests, then converted to environmentalism; his rhetoric embraced worthy-sounding objectives but he presided over a general sense of national decline and loss of influence in Europe.

"Apart from a few speeches and some smart diplomacy, it is clear Chirac will have left no legacy of substance to future generations. No grand monument to be sure, but no reform worthy of the name either," political journalist France-Olivier Giesbert said in a recent biography.

But despite many ups and downs, Chirac remained a popular figure -- his lack of intellectual pretension, gargantuan appetite for beer and food, and undoubted love of his country ensuring a solid base of affection. A poll once said he was the politician most French people would like to have dinner with.

And for his fans, the legacy is clear. They cite his recognition of French responsibility in the deportation of Jews in World War II, his defence of France's social model, and above all his principled opposition to the war in Iraq.


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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